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Door County Jobs at Stake in Southeast Asia

Kuala Lumpur is in full expansion. The number of car owners is increasing faster than roads can be built. This means better paying jobs, a higher standard of living, more rich people, more boats. That’s why I’m here. The jobs at stake are not threatened by Southeast Asia, they can be created in Door County by selling more machines to Southeast Asia.

The 1996 Door County-made 35BFM Marine Travelift boat hoist working in Thailand.

I have five weeks to cover seven countries. It will require 17 flights, four trains, three ferries, countless cars and taxis to visit the roughly 40 customers and prospects on my list. My goal – get sales, legally, ethically and fairly.

For a Door County factory to export its product to such faraway places is no piece of cake. It takes the utmost effort from everyone in the factory, from designing to welding to shipping to service. Everyone makes a difference. It took years for everyone to understand how their effort makes a difference. Sometimes it can mean long hours or weekend work to get the work done.

Silently, I thank all the employees for being part of the team. I’d like to extend a “thank you” to all the workers’ spouses, children, relatives and all the people who, as part of the community, help each worker make a difference.

We are still just scratching the surface. Sure, we don’t all have to learn to speak Malay or Chinese. But everyone needs to keep an open mind. Laws, cultures and economies here are very different. The game is different. The needs are different, and the challenges far greater than selling on home turf.

On top of that, the margins can be less. Beating the Chinese manufacturers low price strategy, with higher manufacturing cost, higher shipping cost, is not a given. And the Chinese are not the only competitors, even out here. Competition from Italy, Holland, England and Australia is serious. Nothing is easy. Every step, from meeting a customer to delivering and servicing, is complex. And cost is not the only challenge. There is protectionism in some countries where people are willing to make a homemade prototype just to keep the jobs home.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, Samuel, our local dealer, is driving through traffic. I have to keep pulling the phone away from him as he tries to text and email while driving. It may work at home in Singapore, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work here in Malaysia. People don’t drive the same way or with the same care. I’m holding the GPS to guide him through. We need to reach Lumut by nightfall. We are already on the contingency plan as the original Malay driver is no longer available. Like always, the result is what counts, the means have to be flexible.

We stop in a rest area for a break and a “kopi tare.” “Kopi” means coffee and “tare” means pulled or poured. Basically, imagine this full-size cup of coffee as thick as espresso and vigorously mixed with condensed milk to an orange-ish color, super sweet and thick. It’s all right, once used to it. The hot coffee seems to help the body get used to the crushing heat and humidity, sort of like oil on the fire. After a good sweat, the body adjusts a bit.

There is no croissant, no pastry, no cookie. There is curry food or spicy pepper food; meat or fish in a sauce. The food is out in the open with a few flies over it. I’ll wait for dinner. A very quick stop at the toilet, as the sanity level is perhaps far below Midwest expectations. There is no toilet paper, there is a hose and running water. That’s the other reason for not eating on the way.

Arriving at the hotel is a sign of relief. The Orient Star used to be a star. But since 2005, I see the changes. Maintenance is not part of the culture. If the rooms aren’t crawling with bugs, don’t spray. If the AC has not failed, don’t fix. There is a feeling of staying in a beautiful ruin. The lizards roam the walls. The sliding door doesn’t close. The mosquitos squeeze themselves through the patio door crack. The monkeys and birds are just outside the balcony waiting for unattended food or drink. The Internet works, doesn’t work, works, doesn’t work. That’s just the way it goes here. As long as some of the messages leave and some arrive, I’m happy.

For dinner, Sam favors a European-style restaurant. Samuel always favors European-style food. In fact, if more could afford it, the restaurants would be full. I don’t think it has anything to do with the local food; it is very tasty and healthy. But people want something foreign, something exotic. And in Malaysia, exotic food is European or American food. Tomorrow will be Indian or Malaysian style.

Next morning, our good customer is talking about a trade-in for a bigger machine. He bought a 700T machine back in 2007. This machine was the first of its kind and was erected in Sturgeon Bay back in January 2007 for load testing. After six years of hard work in Malaysia, the customer still loves the machine. There is no doubt in the customer’s mind that getting the Door County product was the best investment the shipyard ever made.

By the way, he still raves about how warm the people of Door County were despite the horrible January cold back in 2007. But this morning, it’s a major disappointment. The sale of the bigger boat hoist is temporarily abandoned. After further study, the customer concludes there isn’t enough boat in that category to justify the investment. It would have meant millions for the county, at least 20 new jobs. We can’t lose morale. We’ll be back in two years to discuss the same topic with the same customer. It’s only a matter of time and a bit of luck.

We move on to the next customer. This one did his studies. There are enough boats (much smaller boats than the previous customer). He gives us the drawings. But the boats are long and will need a special machine. Besides that, he is a handyman. He likes to do everything himself. He was even involved in a local project to make a homemade boat hoist. So price will be a major issue. There will be great temptation to buy from low-price competitors.

We are at the site, a mud bank facing Lumut. The muck is up to our ankles. Sometimes I really wonder if coming to the site, getting all muddy, sweaty and bug bitten really helps in a sale. This is one question I’ll never be able to answer for sure. A flea-infested dog, somewhat mingy, roams around our legs. We have little time to deliver winning arguments. It needs to be short in words. The customer is a thinker. So getting him to think will work.

The 2007 Door County-made 700C Marine Travelift boat hoist working at Grade One Shipyard in Lumut, Malaysia.

“This is a great location, lots of space. However, the ground is soft, the wheels of the Travelift will sink from time to time. It’s a great thing our structure is articulated, otherwise the structure would surely fail here.”

He agrees. Round one, I just neutralized the Chinese competitor. I add, “The site is so far. Better make sure what you buy won’t fail.” He responds, “I can fix anything. Look at this Cat dozer. I rebuilt it.” I reply “Caterpillar, that’s a great brand.” He says, “You have to start with something good, a reliable brand, so that you don’t spend your time fixing it.”

Round two, Marine Travelift is recognized worldwide as the Cadillac of boat hoists, the best and most reliable brand. Even here in Southeast Asia, Marine Travelift benefits from an unmatched admiration for quality, durability and dependability. I think the customer recognized this. Unfortunately, there won’t be round three for a while. He will look for used Marine Travelift machines first. Then we’ll have to cut our price down to the bone. Maybe next year, I’ll come back for round three, four and five. It takes time.

The next meeting at a steel plant for a Shuttlelift (our industrial line) is cancelled. It’s a good time to work on Samuel. Just like many other dealers around the world, he is dedicated to Marine Travelift. But we need more than dedication. We need every dealer to be smarter than competition, able to win deals on their own. We review every step of every meeting to make sure he understands. I need to push him to the outer edge of his comfort zone. He needs to stick his neck out and push deals further forward. He needs to cut his margin to a lower level. Everyone on the supply line, including dealers, needs to be as trimmed as can be to win deals.

Then off to Bangkok. I’m only in the second week of five weeks in Asia. I feel it is going to be a long trip.

Have you ever had that feeling of anxiety when arriving? Hoping to see a sign with your name on it, a friendly face expecting you. No such luck in my world. The taxi driver arranged by the hotel was supposed to be standing at the arrival with a sign with my name on it. We were told not to use anybody else. Sam is on the phone with the hotel. I’m fending off the hundreds of taxi drivers trying to get the business. But then, a moment of relief, she shows up. She says, or at least, I think she says, that she was waiting at the domestic arrival.

Communication is a major challenge. There is the language barrier, and from Thai to English, there is not a single word or sound that matches. But then there is the body language, also different. There is the culture difference. And, most importantly, there is the lack of care to make sure messages are conveyed. Repeating a message to make sure we understand is not an insult. My job as a salesperson is that of communicating, language barrier or not. So I have to repeat a lot and learn quickly the words that work and the words that don’t. There is no need to shout or speak slowly. I don’t believe anyone around me is mentally challenged and the last thing to do is to insult anyone.

From the airport it’s a two-hour ride to the hotel and marina. At 75 mph, it might be a bit less. The road is not too crowded. She flashes, honks, swerves and weaves her way. We are cruising between rice fields and canals. Every thousand feet of so, the highway bulges upward, or sags everywhere else. At that speed, it means brace and fly. I’m thinking “two hours, one hour and 45 minutes, one hour and 40 minutes left…”

There is no point trying to tell her to slow down. She’s paid a flat fee; it’s her last ride of the night; she is going home. She takes a shortcut along a canal. She says there is less traffic this way. However, the speed remains the same. There are cars, bicycles and people walking across the road. Somehow, she clears them all without touching the brakes. I’m on the edge of my seat, held back only by the seatbelt I found buried in the seat. At some point, I’m becoming complacent. Then she turns a corner, crosses a street, and I swear she touched the body of the cyclist. He wobbles on. She says “that wash cloch.” There won’t be dinner tonight. The stomach is still turning.

We arrived at the yacht club and hotel. The old Marine Travelift 35BFM built in 1994 is valiantly standing on the piers. It’s a living testimony to the work and dedication of the team of 1994. I found a friend, somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Stephan Chayer is the international sales director for Marine Travelift in Sturgeon Bay.